Some time last year, I found myself reading 2009′s acclaimed Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. It gripped me almost instantly, doing a terrific job of jumping the reader from the elegance of high-profile New York parties to the smokey apartments of troubled ex-journalists. The book was longer than what I normally read, so I strayed away from Lethem for a while, hesitant as to what the rest of his books might entail. Motherless Brooklyn sounded like a downer, so I didn’t give it a chance.
Luckily, I recently resurfaced my love for Lethem with his 2004 collection of short stories, Men and Cartoons, nine quick tales that jump all over the place. I found out on Wikipedia that Lethem’s first publications were science fiction, so it didn’t throw me off when robots and apocalyptic traffic jams came into play.
Welcome to a world of imagination, where one street observation becomes a magical story involving monotone droids and newspaper villains. Talking sheep mixed with inner dialogue. Lethem turns childhood classmates into superheroes who play drinking games, turns superheroes into normal college professors smoking weed and listening to jazz. He discusses an odd spray that turns missing things and people into 24 hour holograms. Running into familiar faces at parties and the attraction of coincidence. Quick, angry frustrations within an optical center.
The strongest story in this collection is “Super Goat Man,” a lengthy tale about a narrator’s encounters with a discontinued superhero, a goat who was a friend of his father’s, later becoming a teacher at his school and eventually becoming a co-worker. The stories about Super Goat Man that interweave with the narrator’s upbringing turn the bizarre and surreal into something normal and almost expected. The ending is one of the strongest short story kickers I have read. I’d rather not ruin it for you.
Spend a Saturday in your local library and dive into Lethem’s short story, maybe grab a novel to take home while you’re at it. I am now fully on board with all things Lethem. I recently grabbed Motherless Brooklyn and plan on reading it as soon as possible. Cheers.